Renters Commission: Giving Renters a Voice

Sep 24, 2021 | City Council

At our last meeting, I was pleased to see the unanimous approval of agenda item DC-2, creating a new Renters Commission.

I hope that it can be a forum for raising issues that would not typically come to the attention of Council. At the 9/20 Council meeting, I offered two amendments in an attempt to give the Renters Commission a stronger voice on behalf of tenants. I asked for these amendments based on my recent experience working on tenant protections in the Fair Chance Ordinance and the Early Leasing Ordinance.

Fair Chance Ordinance (passed April 5, 2021)

Early Leasing Ordinance (passed Aug 2, 2021)

I offered an amendment to DC-2, proposing that we remove the two non-voting seats designated for landlord interests. In Council discussion, these seats were explained by the sponsors as a helpful compromise: in an early draft, the Renters Commission would have included landlords as voting members. I don’t think that proposal or the compromise of non-voting membership are necessary or helpful toward crafting policy in support of tenants.

During the months when the Fair Chance and Early Leasing Ordinance appeared on public agendas, all of Council witnessed the lobbying efforts of landlords and the many arguments they offered in defense of their business practices. Virtually every argument offered in defense of current rental practice (why it was necessary and whose needs it served) were disputed by either tenants, legal advocates with experience working on behalf of tenants, or both. I witnessed how landlord voices very nearly drowned out the voices of tenants. Landlords are connected and organized in a way that tenants simply are not.

Advocacy and support for the Early Leasing Ordinance was organized primarily within the University of Michigan (GEO and CSG), but their efforts will benefit student and non-student tenants across the city. A Renters Commission within our City government is an acknowledgement that tenant rights are not just a student issue: the City recognizes that the concerns of tenants reach well beyond the student community and a Renters Commission will provide a forum for these issues to be discussed and considered. Landlords will be heard, whether or not they have any seat at the table.

My amendment – removing these landlord seats from the renters commission – was defeated.

As proposed, this commission will be like nearly every other City commission: the Mayor alone will make nominations, and appointments will be subject to the approval of a majority of Council. In a second amendment to DC-2, I proposed that the Renters Commission have more influence over their membership, by reviewing and recommending future appointments. The process of Mayoral appointments is problematic for a whole host of reasons, which are apparent to those of us on Council who have access to applications and see patterns in how these nominations happen.

I wrote more about it here:

The Renters Commission broadly states that its members will be

“representative of various renter perspectives in the City, such as student, youth, low-income, LGBTQ, immigrant, persons with criminal records, persons receiving rental subsidies, cooperative or group housing, tenant advocacy groups, persons who have experienced homelessness, or historically underrepresented groups”

This directive is helpful, but not prescriptive. Most significantly: there is no requirement that any seat on this Commission will actually be occupied by a renter. Only one voting member is prescribed specifically: “at least one attorney with experience representing renters or advocating for renters’ interests.” Other designated seats are non-voting: two Council members, two representatives from the landlord perspective, a liaison from the University of Michigan, and a liaison from the Housing and Human Services Advisory Commission.

This commission’s ability to articulate the concerns of renters and recommend policy supportive of renters depends very much on the voting members who sit on it. Appointments that depend entirely on Mayoral discretion are most problematic in situations like this one, where we are trying to give voice to less powerful (i.e. less politically connected) members of our community. The Bylaws for the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission (ICPOC) recognize this problem; appointments to ICPOC do not originate with the Mayor. I hoped that the Renters Commission could begin with a similar premise: giving voice to less powerful people means that the most powerful people should not dictate who participates in that conversation.

My amendment – asking for Commission review and recommendation of future appointments – was defeated at the table.

I look forward to seeing how the Commission moves forward and I appreciate Council Member Radina’s efforts in bringing it forward. I am cautiously optimistic that its membership can and will be reflective of perspectives we aim to hear more clearly. For it to be successful, this Commission must be comprised of people who are genuinely informed and concerned about the needs of renters in our community.